Want a Warming Winter Cocktail? It Doesn’t Get Easier Than This
For those who love Negronis and other bitter-tinged drinks, the amaro caldo—a toddy-like mix of amaro and hot water created in northern Italy—is a drink worth getting to know.
Compared to a chilled drink, warming up amaro can unlock nuanced aromas and flavors, says Jeremy Hois, general manager of Amor y Amargo. “Different notes come out, depending on which you’re drinking,” he says. The hot water dilutes the bitter intensity of amaro and enhances various botanicals, herbs, and spices, yielding a “comforting, soothing” effect he compares to that of a cozy cup of tea.
Not every amaro is suited to the caldo style, which is essentially a hot toddy recipe, with no sweetener or spices needed. (Most amaros contain some sugar, despite their bitter reputation.)
“The ideal is an amaro that isn’t too extreme in any way,” says Joe Campanale, co-owner of Brooklyn’s Fausto, a regional Italian restaurant that breaks out amaro caldo as soon as the weather turns cold.
If anyone has advanced the caldo, it’s Campanale, who became something of an advocate after drinking it following a wild boar hunt in Tuscany in 2017. A café visit capped a rainy day: “I saw the hunters, just drinking amaro with hot water and citrus peel,” he recalls. “We were cold to the bone, wet cold. And this amaro caldo was just instantly warming.” Upon returning home, he added it to Fausto’s menu in winter 2017.
His amaro pick: Antico Amaro Noveis, made with herbs collected at the base of Alpine mountains in northern Italy’s Piedmont. “It has a little pininess and warming spice,” he explains. “It’s particularly balanced, not too sweet and not too bitter.”
Campanale tends to prepare his with equal parts amaro and water, he says—sometimes the ratio is closer to one part amaro and two parts hot water—in a rocks glass or mug, with an orange or lemon peel garnish to echo the citrus notes of the amaro.
Since then, the caldo has found its way to other areas that have blustery winters, too. At Death & Co Denver, the Return Trip Caldo features Braulio Amaro, fortified with Calvados, a French apple brandy, and rich oloroso sherry, topped with boiling water and garnished with a slice apple fan.
“The alpine qualities in Braulio make it really enjoyable for a caldo,” explains bar manager Alex Jump. “I like how the herbaceous qualities of sage and mint open up with hot water.”
Some mix and match amaro styles. For example, at London Underground, a British-themed pub in Ames, Iowa, Darian Everding combines Campari, an aperitivo bitter with grapefruit pith-like tones, with the rich baking spice notes of Luxardo Amaro Abano in a “winter feature drink” called the Left Turn. In addition to hot water, the only other ingredient is a swath of orange peel twisted over the surface of the drink: “The orange oil expressed on top adds another layer of depth and sweetness,” Everding notes.
Fans of the more aggressively bitter fernet can enjoy it caldo style, too: “Hot fernet may be my drink of this winter,” Amor y Amargo’s Hois says—and the Loggia menu suggests an astonishing range of 14 fernets from the bar’s inventory for “Opzione Caldo Fernet.”
Hois suggests six or seven ounces of hot water to two ounces of fernet, roughly a 3-1 ratio, presented in an Irish coffee mug. His favorites for a caldo include Vittone Menta, similar to the more familiar Branca Menta, for its “candied mint and dark chicory” qualities, as well as the molasses and buckwheat honey tones of Chicago’s Letherbee fernet. Lengthening fernet with hot water softens the intensity of the amaro, transforming it into a drink to linger over rather than grimace and shoot.
Perhaps the ultimate allure of the amaro caldo may be that it’s hard to mess up.
“There’s an ease about it, without being too precious,” Campanale assures. As with another Italian staple, the spritz, he says, even if there’s a little too much of one ingredient or another, the drink will still be pretty good: “If you like it as an amaro, you’ll like it as an amaro caldo.”
Five Bottles to Try in an Amaro Caldo
Antico Amaro Noveis
“I love the Noveis because it’s particularly balanced, not too sweet and not too bitter,” says Fausto’s Campanale.
Made in the Italian Alps near the Swiss border, Jump describes Braulio as “one of our house favorites here at D&C Denver,” thanks to its nuanced mix of “bitterness, sweetness, and herbaceousness.”
Luxardo Amaro Abano
A slightly sweeter style made with bitter orange peel, cardamom, and cinnamon, Amaro Abano is “a rich, spicy, sweet digestivo,” says Everding.
Fernet Vittone Menta
Despite its “candied mint quality,” Hois characterizes this fernet as dry rather than sweet, and finds lemon peel, tarragon, and chicory flavors.
Hois describes the dark honey-and-molasses profile as a relatively “intense experience” that provides “a good, solid winter warmer.”
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